My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

by Steve Schlich

“Damn 'puncheads!” bellowed the captain. “You mean to tell me that you let one of those vagrants stow aboard my ship, mister?”

Captain Sacher's pony tail flapped like a fuzzy umbilical behind him, silhouetted against the gleaming metal vastness of Deck 3. Red anger glowed beneath the tight curls of his beard as he paced the ranks. But the maddening vrip-vrip of his velcro boots against the deck undermined the aura of threat he was trying to project. No more troop reviews in zero-G!

Petrie, a lieutenant j.g. with no pony tail, kept his eyes front and (with effort) the smile off his face. He had no explanation for the captain. He'd been sweet-talked into it.

Contrast the Captain's talk: not so sweet. “What else did they teach you at the Academy? How to sneak your lover aboard the Mars Shuttle?”

“He's not my lover,” Petrie snapped. “I'm strictly hetero.”

“You'll be a eunuch if you talk back to me again, mister! I could have you jettisoned for willful breach of security. You remember that.”

“Yessir,” said Petrie bleakly.

Sacher tucked errant strands of hair behind his ears and pulled them out again absently. Petrie's hair barely touched the tops of his ears. One step away from a shinehead himself, Sacher thought darkly. He surveyed the young officer with distaste.

“Why'd you let the 'punc aboard? What dope did he feed you?”

Petrie swallowed. “No dope, sir. He, uh, said he was dying of a rare disease, and uh, he had to see Mars before he died...”

The captain scratched his beard. “A rare disease?”

“Cancer, sir.”

Laughter ran through the ranks. Sacher stopped it with a glaring jerk of his head. Unproven boys, look at them! Many showed signs of space fatigue a mere day into the flight. Hell, the boosters weren't even cold yet!

Only a few of this new crop had hair long enough to reach their collars, and no man's fell past his shoulder blades. The Captain's was down to his ass. None were trying to grow beards, either. The arrogance of youth: garbage. Anything to rebel.

The captain looked back at Petrie. “Perhaps I should remind you that Cancer was cured around the time you were born, lieutenant. You make me wonder if that was twenty years ago or yesterday.”

Petrie had hoped that honesty would earn him a point or two with the captain. But confronted with the utter stupidity of this argument, he realized that it would get him hanged instead. What magic had made him believe the 'punc?

“He...had no money for the cure, sir.”

Sacher rolled his eyes. “And you bought this story.”

“I can't explain it, sir. I guess you had to be there.”


“I mean, it seemed reasonable at the time, sir.”

“I'll show you reasonable, mister! You're confined to quarters during off-duty hours for the rest of the mission. And every sub-cred that stowaway costs this ship will come out of your pay. You dig, lieutenant?”


Sacher shook his head at Petrie and stepped back to address the assemblage. “Dismissed. Get out of here, all of you!” The troops fled in a ripping cacophony of velcro.

Frank Sacher relaxed in the captain's quarters of the shuttle Passage by removing his hair tie and running his fingers through his matted gray locks. He twisted the hairs absently and wondered if it was too early to get high. After this latest bit of idiocy he supposed not, and lit a Jamaican Blonde from the decanter on his desk.

With a brief knock, First Officer Taylor stepped through the entry. He was a tall man, taller than the captain, with long, silky white hair. And he was closer to retirement age, but standing stiffly at attention he looked much younger. The pressures of command, Sacher mused.

“Is the 'punc still in the brig?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh come on, Bill. Don't 'sir' me just because I had to play the crusty old battle-ax for the troops. I wasn't shouting at you.”

He offered the Jamaican to Taylor. The First Officer waved it off: too early. It was always to early for him, Sacher observed silently.

“You were kind of harsh on that kid, Frank.”

“Kid is right! He must be all of twenty years old and already he thinks he can run my ship better than I can. How he made lieutenant I'll never guess.”

Taylor ignored the harangue. “And you're accusing our prisoner of being a 'puncture freak on circumstantial evidence only.”

The captain snorted. “Who else carries around a full set of diamond-tipped acupuncture needles? You know damn well he'll push them into his skull the first chance he gets!”

Taylor looked from the Jamaican Blonde to Sacher as the smoke wafted toward the air duct in a thin column. “Remember when smoking that made us criminals? I thought we'd made some progress. Ease up, Frank. TA isn't even illegal.”

“I remember when `TA' stood for Transactional Analysis and 'punk' meant music. Now it's bald-headed kids pithing themselves with diamond needles. I don't call that progress.”

“You're beginning to sound like my father.”

Sacher toked deeply on the Blonde and leaned back. “Point well taken. But the punishment stands. I can't let something like this go by. Who knows what Petrie might drag aboard next?” He shivered. “And what do we do with the bald creep between here and Mars?”

As he spoke, Sacher's expression soured. He was carrying the equation through for the first time: three months going, one there, four back... “Oh hell,” he groaned. “We're stuck with him for eight lousy months!”

“So calm down. He won't disrupt the entire ship from the brig.”

“He's a hassle, Bill. He doesn't belong on my ship. And what about the cost? How much has he sucked from us already?”

“Actually, the only expense he's incurred so far is that of holding him in the brig. You know we're running several thousand kilos light this time. No strain on food synthesis. Boarding another man makes no difference one way or the other.”

“Don't play games with me. The law's been broken, the regulations violated. The ship could have been put in jeopardy. We're sitting on some shinehead stowaway for the rest of the flight because one of the Academy's well-trained lieutenants saw fit to breach security. An officer!”

“Petrie's not as stupid as you make him out, Frank. I scanned his record a moment ago. Spotless up to now. You ought to be wondering how `that shinehead' could get past any officer so easily.”

Sacher stubbed the Blonde. “I intend to find out.”

The 'punc sat motionless in a corner of the cell, head pressed to his knees, oblivious to the outside world. Captain Sacher looked at him disgustedly from the other side of the barrier, fighting an urge to forget this snot and go smoke another Blonde. The kid's head glared in the overhead lights, an effect heightened for Sacher by the marijuana. No acupuncture marks had been found on him, but Sacher was told that the technique often left no trace.

“Well, well, Captain Sacher.”

The voice dripped with sarcasm and Sacher looked over his shoulder for the source. No one was there. He turned back and discovered the 'punc staring at him. The lips twisted into a vague sneer; the eyes were bottomless orbs that bored through him.

“You said that?” Sacher sputtered, wondering at how a mere four words from this kid could unhinge him so completely. “So you know my name. Tell me yours.”

“I don't have one.”

“You'd rather I called you shithead?”

“Call me `Legion' if you want, I don't care.”

It was Sacher's turn for sarcasm. “My name is Legion,” he quoted. “Aren't you a clever one!”

Sacher touched his passbadge to the outer cell lock and stepped inside when the barrier slid aside. He touched the inner lock and they were safely separated from the rest of the ship again. He watched the 'punc's eyes follow the badge back into his pocket.

“Don't even think about it,” he said, tossing his head in the direction of freedom. “One wrong move and you'll be jumped from all directions. My crew is well trained in handling intruders.”

“I don't doubt it for a minute.”

Contempt had not left the kid's voice, and it grated against the Captain's psyche like sandpaper. Sacher closed his eyes and retreated into the smoky-light recesses of his mind.

“I ought to have you jettisoned immediately.” Sacher opened his eyes on the last word for emphasis. “But that would be inhumane, even for you...”

His voice trailed off because there was suddenly empty space where the 'punc had been. The kid stood behind him now, nose pressed to the barrier, and had reached there without making a sound. Am I that stoned? Sacher wondered.

He continued, trying to sound as if nothing was wrong. “Since we have to board you for the next eight months, you're going to earn it. You'll clean the rest rooms and social areas for starters. Under guard, of course.”

The 'punc spoke without looking away from the barrier. “And if I refuse?”

“Then I'll lock you up in solitary confinement! Or whatever it takes to make you miserable!” 'Puncheads had been known to thrive on solitary. “But I'll nail your ass to the wall, don't you worry. You won't get to play with these —” He slipped the soft leather pouch of TA needles from his uniform and showed them to the 'punc.

“My points!” Legion reached for the pouch.

Sacher jerked it away. “Watch it, kid! You're illegal on this ship, and these stay with me until I say different.” He held the pouch horizontal with both hands. “I'll break 'em first.”

The kid looked back through the barrier. “Okay. What do I do to get them back?”

Sacher smiled: that's more like it. “You mellow out and do what I tell you. Don't feed me crap and you'll get by.”

“Well, yassuh!”

The captain's eyes narrowed. “Listen, 'punc, I don't need your lip. What makes you think you're so damned superior?”

“Inferiority is a state of mind, superiority a state of being,” the 'punc quoted someone, likely another 'punc.

“The state of being on the Passage is my reality, not yours. You play straight with me and you'll get your needles back. If not, you'll wish you'd never seen this ship. You see, you're just as stuck with me as I am with you.”

“Don't count on it, Cap, but I'll play ball. You scratch me and I'll scratch you, that the idea?” He moved forward.

Sacher tightened his grip on the pouch. “Right,” he agreed cautiously. He was determined to hold his ground against this kid. He'd revealed too many weaknesses already.

“I just want my points pack, Cap.”

Incredibly, Sacher felt the pouch slip from his fingers as if he had no grip at all. The 'punc retreated, sank to the floor, and opened the pouch in one motion. The microdiamond tips glinted in the light.

Sacher convinced himself that he had allowed the 'punc to take the pouch. He was mesmerized by the jewely glitter of the needles. The 'punc raised one to his skull, felt for the correct spot, and pushed it in. A placid smile crept over his features. His hand left the needle dangling and returned to the pouch for another.

“Want to see how it's done?”

Sacher moved closer in a trance, his guard lowered. The kid's eyes were windows to a vacuum, making it hard to believe that he was anything but harmless. The 'punc placed the second needle and pushed. Sacher winced but noted the further relaxation that came immediately. The kid's eyelids drooped and his face went slack. He slipped the needle out again and touched the spot with his finger.

“Look.” He tilted his head to the captain.

Sacher touched the spot, feeling nothing out of the ordinary. A tiny prick at the base of his own skull went ignored. But the prick persisted and suddenly blossomed into swirling waves of sleep that washed over his brain. It was heavier than any drug rush Sacher had had in years. He felt himself slip forward, caught by the 'punc, and laid out on the floor. The needle in his skull wiggled and spun new currents through the sleepy ocean of his mind. They subsided quickly.

“You're not dying, just incapacitated.” Sacher felt the 'punc slip the passbadge from his pocket. “It's an old game of ours,” Legion continued. “You can insert the needle yourself, but you can't take it out. Do you trust the one who finds you?”

Sacher drifted helplessly in a dark void, ricocheting between opposite poles of influence. Progress/Change: both were inevitable but not one and the same. It all held a wispy familiarity and went on for hours. But when he was finally revived by surprised guards—a simple pull of the needle did the trick—only ten minutes had really elapsed.

In that time, the 'punc had taken the engine room.

That information came to light during the intensive search that Sacher directed from the bridge, when a sprinting crewman found the two duty engineers lying in the hallway. Each had a single needle in his scalp. Entry to the intruder's new stronghold was blocked.

Sacher depressed a series of switches and the 'punc's image crackled to life on his viewscreen. Another switch pressed and Sacher's image appeared on the engine room screen.

“Legion,” he spat. “What the hell kind of name is Legion?”

Legion was busy with parts of the control panel out of view; he spoke without looking up. “Who I am makes no difference, captain. What I am should be your concern. But that's something you'll never understand.”

A half-dozen needles hung from his scalp, and he inserted another defiantly. His blue-eyed stare dropped into infinity across the screen. “I'm taking the ship,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I accounted for that! You're bypassing dummy controls.”

A sardonic chuckle. “Sorry, Cap. I'm too far into the board to fall for that. It's my ship now.”

“Congratulations,” Sacher told him savagely. “We're hijacked. Where are we going? Venus? The rings of Saturn?”

“You underestimate me, captain. We're going back to Moonbase. But this time the landing will be...somewhat rougher than the takeoff!”

“You wouldn't dare crash us. You couldn't!”

Legion smiled grimly. “No game, captain. This is for keeps!”

With that, the Passage executed a violent roll, slapping people and objects against the wall. It was a surprising piece of flying, but Sacher kept his wits and used the confusion to break his connection with Legion. He barked orders immediately.

“You! Get a detail down to the entry and work on it, but don't break in. He'll be expecting that route.” To another: “Get over to Tactical with a readout of air duct plans and flood that room with quick-inert gas. Level Four. Then flush it. You've got ten minutes. Move!”

Taylor stood at his elbow suddenly, his brow furrowed. “Why go in with that stuff?”

“You've got a better idea?”

“Level 1 anesthegas. You'll kill him this way.”

“He'll kill himself—and us—if I don't stop him cold. We can't take chances, Bill. He's out to destroy us and Moonbase!”

He had Taylor's shoulders in a white-fisted grip, his eyes wild, refusing to focus. Taylor extricated himself gently. “It's your ship, Frank.”

“You're damned right it is.” Sacher flipped the broken circuit back into existence and the 'punc reappeared, still working. A dozen needles now hung from his scalp, looking like the dreadlocks of some metallic Rasta man.

Got to keep him distracted, thought Sacher. “Legion! You really mean to crash us into Moonbase?” Legion acknowledged the question, or the answer, with a nod.


Legion sighed impatiently, his earlier defiance in the brig now intensified. “Your system is crumbling around you, old man. Can't you see it?” A roll of the eyes. “It doesn't matter. You'll all be dead soon.”

“And you, 'punc, and you!”

Legion nodded toward the entry, his needles a glittering aura around his head. “Call off your stooges, captain. I'll kill them before they can stop me.”

“Damn you!” Sacher cursed, trying to make his frustration sound real. “Don't think a minor skirmish wins the war!”

“You've lost. Admit it,” said Legion, but Sacher was distracted from his screen when a voice told him:

“We just released the gas, sir.”

“I heard that —” The 'punc froze as his brain deciphered the meaning of the words. Gas! “What did you blow in here?” he demanded, suddenly pacing like a paranoid. Sacher could hear a faint hiss from the screen's speaker. He punched up the task forces he'd set into motion.

“Give him ten minutes and flush the room. Should be inert by then anyway, but make sure. You've got that much time to check the entry for booby traps. Move!”

Sacher was first in when the room had been certified safe. It was too late for the 'punc: the now-inert gas had already deposited its poison into his bloodstream. Sacher found him convulsing on the floor.

“You lost the war, kid.”

“Only a skirmish, captain,” the 'punc grunted. “The real war hasn't started yet. But you'll know when it does.”

A new convulsion twisted his face into a mass of pain, squeezing out his breath in ragged bursts. A medoc scanned him and lifted weary eyes to the captain. Death would arrive in minutes, perhaps seconds.

“You bought it, Cap. The big lie. You sold out just like all the others before you. And now you'll murder to keep it going, just like all the others. Your time has passed!”

“And you'll be different.”

“We are different.”

“You're dying, 'punchead. You've lost. I've got my ship back and you're dead.”

“You're the one who's dying, old man.” The kid remained defiant through his pain. “My name is Legion, remember? The future belongs to me, not you. You're just another buffalo.”

Sacher jerked him off the floor by his shirt, full of rage and fear but unable to speak it. His mouth opened and closed silently as he saw that the kid was finally dead. He lowered the body to the deck, feeling a touch of death and age in his own bones.

You're just another buffalo.

Later, in his cabin, Sacher felt a dull coldness wash over him. You're just another buffalo. The last time he had heard that phrase was thirty years before. It had come from his own lips.

He smoked a final Jamaican Blonde, packed the pouch of TA needles inside his decanter, and jettisoned both.

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich

ABOUT THE STORY introduction from the 1994 book ORPHANS

“Passage” is a faux orphan in this collection. I never submitted it anywhere because it's locked into the time that I wrote it — the late Seventies during my hippie period. It did win third prize at the State of Maine Writers' Conference in 1979, not much of a feat until you understand than all of the judges were conservatives well past retirement age. They got past the unlikely premise long enough to hear the message, as I hope you will.

This story is also — in a way — an homage to Star Trek. When I write, I visualize my locations. The ship herein is not the Enterprise, but it contains much of the same equipment and spaces.